The Democracy We Deserve


The Armed Forces (Parliamentary Approval for Participation in Armed Conflict) Bill had its second reading on 21st October.  Clare Short’s proposal for a mandatory vote in the Commons before going to war would not be needed in other modern democracies, though it appears to be regarded as pretty radical in Britain. The Bill would require the prime minister to outline the legal authority for going to war, and if the Commons voted against, the war could not be fought.  The Bill in effect would abolish the so-called royal prerogative, as it affects declaring war.  You might think that with the Iraq war so fresh in mind, MPs would be eager to improve democratic accountability, transferring some power from the Executive to the Commons, but only just over 100 of our representatives bothered to turn up for the debate, a minority of these having attended to oppose the Bill.

Sadly, the Leader of the House is no longer Robin Cook, whose recent death has deprived the House of a moderate voice, one that would have given strong support to this Bill, and instead we have Geoff Hoon.  Cook would certainly have allowed a vote at the end, whereas Hoon used his position to talk out the Bill.

In the first place, and critically, not enough MPs bothered to turn up.  A Friday morning, a time reserved for private members' Bills, is usually regarded as time out for MPs.  A minimum of 100 was needed to vote in favour, to ensure the passage of the Bill to committee stage. This was a bill on perhaps the most important subject possible, the question of committing the country to war!  It was also about democracy, of course - about the need for our representatives to have a say, rather than leaving decisions of war and peace to be made by the Executive (or, in the case of modern Britain, to the prime minister alone).

The quality of the debate itself was generally good.  There were impassioned speeches, pointing out that of modern democracies Britain alone had no requirement for a full parliamentary debate before going to war.  The anachronistic nature of the royal prerogative, the fact that parliament was not informed of the full legal opinion on the Iraq war (which this Bill would make mandatory), the way in which parliament had been deceived by the leadership on the Iraq war, the improvement in democracy that the Bill would bring, all these points were forcefully made. 

The idea behind Clare Short’s Bill was to curb executive power, bring some of the important decision-making down to the floor of the Commons where, in democratic theory, it properly belongs.  The pro-democracy NGO Charter 88 strongly espoused the cause, with more than 1,000 activists writing to their MPs to plead that they attend the debate, and, of course, vote for the Bill.  From its anti-war perspective CND also took up the cause – both anti-war and pro-democrats fought side by side, a truly harmonious combination.  The result?  The depressing turnout. Not even sponsors of the Bill, such as Ken Clarke and William Hague, turned up.  Gordon Brown, in a pre-election interview in the Daily Telegraph, promised firmly that if elected Labour would get rid of the royal prerogative.  Probably this was said to allay fears, generated by the Iraq war, that the public would perceive the executive as out of control, and withhold their Labour vote. (See:  Brown: I would give MPs the last word on war. 30th April, ’05.)  Safely elected, Gordon Brown did not even attend the debate. 

Opportunities to improve democracy do not come along often.  As Menzies Campbell, Lib Dem spokesman for foreign affairs said: ‘Parliament missed a rare opportunity to assert its authority over the executive’.

The reasons for the failure to attend this most important occasion must be guessed at.  One motive may be the one Hoon himself mentioned: an unwillingness to give up a Friday, when only private members’ Bills are to be heard, that has come to be regarded as a holiday.  Another, and more likely, is that MPs were afraid to stand up and be counted, to vote for the Bill (and so against the entrenched executive), for the sake of their careers.  They didn’t want to be regarded as having joined the ‘awkward squad’. (Downing Street had made its opposition to the Bill known.) These are motives, not sufficient excuses, of course. Blair and Howard were absent, but somehow I expected Charles Kennedy to be there.  However, a good number of Liberal Democrats did attend. 

During the debate, those arguing against took the line that the Executive should be unfettered by the Commons so as to act quickly and decisively.  The anachronistic royal prerogative, which the Bill sought to abolish in the case of war, was actually defended by Hoon and others on the grounds that it improved this necessary flexibility.  One MP, McDonagh, in support of her anti stand read out reams of letters from her constituents verbatim, letters from servicemen and ex-servicemen, describing the horrors of war.  Though these were the very people who would be the most likely beneficiaries of the Bill, which was to curb unnecessary wars, not to make more of them, she somehow used them as an argument to quash the Bill, along the lines of: These heroes are in the front line, putting their lives at risk for their country, while you MPs are sitting in your comfortable green armchairs discussing the matter!  Confused? 

The idea that MPs should argue against devolving power to themselves at the expense of the executive, which had so recently been the cause of a disastrous decision to go to war, is hard to comprehend.  Are they against democracy itself, the form of social contract they are supposed to represent?  And in favour of the rule of an oligarchy picked by the prime minister?  They claimed that matters of national security are best left to the ruling clique, the sort of decisions that must be taken behind closed doors ‘in the national interest’ (a phrase dropped more than once). That is how state matters were settled once upon a time, in Machiavelli’s day, but a democracy operates best out in the open level plains.  What need for secrecy, for clandestine agreements, for behind-the-scenes actions taken in our name of which we, if aware of them, would be ashamed?  Does this seem terribly radical to you, dear reader?

There was also much talk of ‘special forces’.  These are armed forces sent in early, before a conflict is declared, to prepare the ground and spy out the proposed enemy’s defences.  Their status would be questionable, to say the least, if sent in by the executive (allowed by the Bill in cases of emergency), and then parliament found that the proposed war would be illegal.  This was actually an argument brought forward against the Bill!  The vision of clandestine armed forces deployed to soften up an enemy (none of the rubbish about the United Nations here, by the way – this was good practical talk) roaming the globe in secret ‘in the national interest’, is of an anarchic world from which no progress has been made since ancient times.  No wonder these speakers had decided to vote against more democracy!

 Anyway, at the end, one MP (Hoon, the Leader of the House), took advantage of his position to filibuster his way to the end of the session despite interjections that he stop and allow another vote, and that seemed to be that. However this cynical manoeuvre would surely have been impossible if the Chamber had been better attended.

The working of parliament is rather arcane to ordinary members of the public, so I waited till the morning paper arrived next day for an explanation of what had actually happened to the Bill at last.  Was it going to Committee after all, or had it really been defeated at this second reading by lack of numbers?  Amazingly, the paper (The Guardian, generally recognised as a quality broadsheet) did not even mention the debate!  Not even a letter was printed about it, though many must have been received.  Worse, a good article by Matthew Tempest appeared on the Guardian Unlimited website only hours after the debate, headed Government kills Short’s War Bill.  This was material that might have been expected to occupy the front page the next morning, but yet – nothing!  Nothing also in the Observer the following morning.  So we have recorded so much for you, dear reader, as you probably won’t have read it anywhere else.                              H.D